Ireland April 2003

Paddy Solemn and the Desperate Chancer

The conflict between two eternal Irish types

Last year Dunphy ghostwrote the memoirs of the national soccer captain Roy Keane, a book said to have been more successful in Ireland than any other since the Book of Kells. He was widely held to have encouraged Keane's abrupt walkout from the team during last summer's World Cup, and was bitterly denounced for it. Altogether, both what Dunphy has written about others and what others have written about him might have been designed to illustrate Johnson's saying that "the Irish are a fair people;—they never speak well of one another," and Yeats's phrase about Ireland with its "great hatred, little room."

If the Desperate Chancer is one eternal Irish type, Dunphy's critics represent another: Paddy Solemn, the character perceived and labeled by the brilliant (and unsolemn) Brian O Nolan, otherwise known as the novelist Flann O'Brien and the satirist Myles na gCopaleen. You can find Paddy Solemn in J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World as Shaneen—dutiful, teetotal, priggish (and rejected by Pegeen Mike in favor of his brutal but glamorous rival). In his academic guise the type was wittily pinned down by Conor Cruise O'Brien: "Paddy Solemn likes to use precise-sounding terminology in a vague way, and derives from this a bracing sense of intellectual rigour"; in his clerical form he can be seen on either side of the Atlantic, the kind of Hibernian prelate who tries to dismiss child-abuse scandals by invoking theology.

And yet Paddy Solemn isn't merely risible or contemptible. At a time when the Catholic Church is imploding almost as fast in Ireland as in that Irish colony the Archdiocese of Boston, maybe it takes an English Protestant to see how much the Irish owe to their church and to priests who—often quite literally—gave their lives for those whose abject poverty they shared, and who taught them self-respect under the worst destitution and injustice. One might say that Father Mathew was solemn for devoting his life early in the nineteenth century to the cause of temperance, and his successor Father Cullen for founding the Pioneers, whose pin proclaimed total abstinence, but drink was as much a corrosive misery in the Dublin slums then as crack is in American cities today.

If Kevin Myers was playing Paddy Solemn, it wasn't entirely without reason. I count myself a friend as well as a colleague of Eamon Dunphy's, but no friend can regard him as a role model for the young or regret that he is off the roads for ten years. (He might think of making it permanent.) What's more, Myers is a consistent and courageous foe of the fascist movement known as "Irish republicanism," and he may just have a point when he links the indolent Irish tolerance for roaring boys who like a jar with the way that "terrorist chieftains dripping with blood of innocents are transformed into amiable, grinning grandfathers on the front pages of our newspapers."

Of course, it's never easy to be serious without being pompous. O'Brien wrote that "Paddy Solemn shudders at the thought, and cringes at the sight or sound, of Brendan Behan"—for whom read Eamon Dunphy—and that the poor fellow is haunted by a secret fear "that Ireland Will Let Him Down." He continued, "Of what avail his personal respectability if he is dragged down by a national entity which refuses to be respectable?" A graver problem still is that "republicanism" itself is a manifestation of Paddy Solemn. Nearly a hundred years ago the original Sinn Fein party said that "Ireland sober is Ireland free." More recently, while Sinn Fein's "armed wing" spent years blowing women and children to pieces, the IRA was widely admired in Ireland for at least being disciplined, honest, and abstemious (just like al Qaeda, you might say).

It would be too easy to invoke those other lines of Yeats's, which condemn Paddy Solemn under another name as

A levelling, rancorous, rational
    sort of mind
That never looked out of the
    eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.

To call dissipation a form of genius looks like an excuse; and although I enjoyed our valedictory evening, it isn't one I would want to repeat in a hurry. All the same, if solemnity has sometimes been a necessary virtue for the Irish, it would be a pity if they became so suffocatingly respectable and self-righteous—so horrified by the sight and sound of Brendan Behan, or of Eamon Dunphy—that they couldn't see that the Chancer is part of the native genius too.

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. He has just finished writing a history of the Tour de France.

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